There is growing momentum behind a global moratorium on destructive kinetic anti-satellite (ASAT) tests. A few days ago, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) passed a resolution calling for a ban on kinetic ASAT tests. The resolution was sponsored by the United States along with a number of other countries that have been concerned about the consequences of ASAT tests on the safety and sustainability of outer space. As many as 155 countries voted in support of the resolution, nine voted against it, and nine others abstained.
Those who voted against the resolution were Belarus, Bolivia, Central African Republic, China, Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, Russia, and Syria. The nine abstentions were India, Laos, Madagascar, Pakistan, Serbia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Togo, and Zimbabwe. The voting pattern is quite similar to the U.N. First Committee vote earlier on the same issue, with only one exception: the Central African Republic had voted in favor of the resolution at the First Committee but decided to vote against it in the UNGA vote.
The ASAT test-ban resolution has no binding effect on states and simply calls on states to put a stop to ASAT tests and to “develop further practical steps and contribute to legally binding instruments on the prevention of an arms race in outer space.” Along with the ASAT test-ban resolution that was passed on December 7, there were several more space- and nuclear-related resolutions, including No First Placement of Weapons in Outer Space (NFP).
According to reports, the ASAT test-ban resolution stated that exercising restraint from conducting ASAT tests is “an urgent, initial measure aimed at preventing damage to the outer space environment, while also contributing to the development of further measures for the prevention of an arms race in outer space.” Indeed, the resolution continues to support the broader efforts at developing “further practical steps” to minimize risks in space.
The current resolution on an ASAT test-ban has its origin in an April 2022 unilateral U.S. decision not to conduct destructive direct-ascent ASAT tests. In fact, after the UNGA vote, Vice President Kamala Harris tweeted, “Back in April, I announced the United States will not conduct destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile tests, and I called on other nations to join us. Today, 155 countries voted in favor of a UN resolution, helping establish this as an international norm for space.”
Since the U.S. decision in April, nine more countries have pledged to not conduct such ASAT tests. France became the latest to announce its decision in this regard. Toward the end of November, the French defense and foreign ministries announced that France would not conduct destructive direct-ascent ASAT tests in an effort to maintain outer space as a safe and stable space. Other countries that have made similar vows to not conduct ASAT tests include Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
Of course, the United States has conducted such direct-ascent ASAT tests in the past, as have many other countries, including Russia, China, and India. Despite the possible hypocrisy in those who conducted such tests now calling for them to be stopped, the fact remains that such tests represent a direct threat to peaceful utilization of outer space on which everyone in the global community depends.
In recent years, there has been a spurt in activities that threaten the safety and functioning of satellites. The November 15, 2021, ASAT test by Russia, which destroyed the Cosmos 1408 satellite, is a case in point. The test created about 1,800 tracked pieces of space debris and possibly many more pieces that are difficult to track. Cosmos 1408 was launched in 1982 and was by 2021 defunct at an orbit of 485 kilometers.
Confirming the test, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said, “The Russian Federation recklessly conducted a destructive satellite test of a direct-ascent antisatellite missile against one of its own satellites. The test has so far generated over 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris that now threaten the interests of all nations.” The spokesperson added, “The test created a large debris field and a hazard for astronauts aboard the International Space Station.” There have been several such instances that has proven the Russian actions to be less than responsible and threaten the sustainability of outer space as a global common.
There are other initiatives underway in the U.N., such as the Open Ended Working Group (OEWG) on reducing space threats through norms, rules, and principles of responsible behaviors. Like the ASAT test ban, these are needed to make progress on the broader space security agenda. The OEWG has held two sessions so far, but it is too early to say how it will proceed as far as outcomes are concerned. The OEWG came through the UNGA process but the discussions have been taking place in Geneva, a good effort to keep the arms control and disarmament work in Geneva alive. Whether a legal measure or a norm, states have to take small preventative steps before space becomes completely a warfighting domain.
Given the worsening space security conditions, with more countries pursuing development of ASATs and other counterspace capabilities, it is time that more countries join the current initiative to stop further ASAT tests. While ASATs represent a set of immediate concerns, there are also worrying trends regarding cyber and electronic warfare in space that are equally worthy of attention. Unless countries can make a conscious decision to come together and work on ways to halt the current trends with regard to space weaponization, continued access to outer space is not a given.